William D. Magwood, IV, formerly head of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy and commissioner at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and current director-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), spoke with POWER Editor Gail Reitenbach in October at the World Nuclear Exhibition. The interview has been shortened by two-thirds for print publication. The full interview is available at powermag.com as “William D. Magwood, IV on Nuclear Power’s Present and Future.”
What are you most looking forward to about this new position?
I have always been involved in bringing different countries together to accomplish things that are difficult for any one country to do. Doing that, from a U.S. standpoint, was always very entertaining and very challenging. Now, I’m in the middle of it. Now that’s a principle part of my role, to bring countries together to solve problems and to do analysis, and answer questions. Now it’s a full-time job, and I’m looking forward to that very much.
When you look at the state of nuclear power globally, what worries you most, and where do you see the strongest signs of progress?
The nuclear story internationally varies greatly from country to country. Some countries, as you know, have decided to step back from using nuclear power. Other countries are moving forward very aggressively. I think that that’s perfect. I think each country has to look at its own specific situation, understand its own energy requirements, and see where nuclear fits.
Energy independence is usually the biggest motivator for countries, and as you look around the world, clearly, Asia is the center point of nuclear power in the next decade or so. In Europe, in places like Finland and the UK, there are also programs moving forward. The United States, obviously, has five reactors under construction. We have talked to people from Mexico and South America who are investigating the possibility of new plants. It’s really a global interest. It has not really been affected that much by the accident in Japan. I think that’s a surprise to many.
The biggest concern I would have is there are so many countries embarking into the nuclear arena that don’t have the infrastructure and don’t have much background in those areas. Watching how they build their capabilities and prepare and build new nuclear power plants is something that certainly has my attention and has the attention of many people around the world.
I just came out of the session on training and safety. Is the global fleet safer today than it was a decade ago, or less safe, and why?
Well, you mentioned training. That’s one of my favorite subjects to talk about. I think that making sure that we have a new generation of scientists and engineers who can take up the operation of existing plants and deal with development of new technologies and solve old problems, like nuclear waste—that’s essential to the future.
One of the things that comes into mind, when it comes to thinking about the safety of nuclear plants, is the fact that in many countries, the fleet of nuclear plants will be the oldest fleets they’ve ever operated. At the same time, because of the generational shift, it’s very likely that the people running those plants in a few years will be the youngest team we’ve ever had running nuclear plants. It’s even more important that we have these people well trained, because they are going to be taking over positions of responsibility very quickly.
To answer your basic question, though, I think that plants are safer today than they’ve ever been. We’ve learned so many lessons over the years from the operation of plants—from normal operation and off-normal operation. We learned from the Fukushima disaster, and around the world, regulators and operators have incorporated these lessons learned very effectively. I think that we’ve created the strongest safety infrastructure we’ve ever had.
Is the U.S. gaining or losing ground in terms of nuclear technology development capacity?
I think that the U.S. technologies that are available from U.S.-based vendors are the most advanced, current technologies. At the same time, others are catching up. I think where the U.S. is not keeping up is when you’re looking over the horizon. What we don’t have in the U.S. is a very broad-based technology program aimed at developing any particular technology at this point. And that’s something that I hope gets resolved in the near future.
You were involved with the Gen IV reactor development program. What’s the future of that program given the slowdown, at least in the U.S. nuclear sector?
The Gen IV initiative is something we came up with more than 10 years ago now. Its purpose was to bring countries together to work on difficult technology issues in common. That way, you save time, you save resources, and you build an international understanding about these important new technologies. To a large degree, Gen IV has been successful in that respect. The beauty of Gen IV is that it’s multilateral. Because it is now something that the NEA administers as the technical secretariat, it has a very firm basis as a multilateral program. If one country’s program slows down, it doesn’t affect the overall agenda.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan was billed as being supportive of nuclear power. How do you see that playing out?
Certainly, any initiative that deals with carbon emissions inherently is a boost to nuclear power. I think it’s too early to tell exactly what the impact will be, but there’s a real good prospect that it will be beneficial to the nuclear producers in the United States. A lot depends on exactly how the targets are set, and how compliance is understood, and whether issues such as power uprates and license renewals are incorporated into the regulation. I’m sure they’re sorting that out right now, so I’ll be very interested to see what the final product is. ■
—William D. Magwood, IV is director-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Nuclear Energy Agency.